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Grocery Manufacturers Want Foods with GMOs to Be Labeled as ‘Natural’

There was a time when food was food. You ate it and were glad of it. What could be more “natural” than that?

But that was back in earlier times when most food came either from your own farm or from stores that bought food from nearby farms. Fast forward to today, and food has become a sometimes complicated and oftentimes controversial topic — all the more so since 1994 with the introduction of a genetically engineered tomato variety, Flavr Savr, which was developed to delay ripening. As the first genetically engineered food to be sold commercially, it opened a new era in agriculture.

Before that, new types of fruits and vegetables were developed by breeding varieties with desired qualities with each other to produce hybrids that were more productive and many times larger, tastier, and easier to grow. But in that sort of traditional breeding method, the genetic material (the DNA or RNA) of the plants wasn’t deliberately altered in ways that would not occur naturally through mating or cell division.

But with genetic engineering, all of that came to be, and some new players entered the scene. We’re talking about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. And we’re still talking about them, only this time it’s gone a step further than whether foods containing GMOs should bear labels informing consumers of the fact — proposals narrowly rejected recently by voters in California and Washington.

Now it’s about whether foods containing GMOs will be allowed to be labeled as “natural.”

‘Big Food’ plans petition to FDA

Last month, “Big Food,” in the form of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a trade organization that represents more than 300 businesses, sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advising that it intends to petition the agency to allow foods containing GMOs to be labeled as “natural.”

Not surprisingly, this has triggered controversy in the industry and among consumers. In some cases, outrage would be a good word for it.

“It’s a sneaky tactic,” said Sandi Tenneson, who grew up on beef and dairy farms in Western Washington. “It shouldn’t be allowed. The only label that means anything right now is ‘organic’ and maybe ‘grass fed.’ They need to clarify what ‘natural’ is.”

Foods labeled as “organic” are not allowed to contain any GMOs, according to USDA’s organic certification standards.

Examples of GMO ingredients found in many processed foods are genetically modified corn, sugar, soy, and oils made from genetically engineered crops. That’s significant because up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain GMO ingredients. In fact, according to the Non-GMO Project, as of 2012, 93 percent of soy, 88 percent of field corn (corn raised for seed or livestock), 94 percent of cotton and more than 90 percent of canola seed and sugar beets planted in the United States are genetically engineered.

In other words, people are — and have been — eating a lot of foods containing GMOs. Yet at the same time, consumers are increasingly seeking out what they perceive to be natural foods and products.

Out in the marketplace, foods labeled as “natural” accounted for about 10 percent of all grocery sales in 2013, while organic food and products made up about 5 percent of all grocery sales that year, according to a report by the Organic Consumers Association. It’s no secret in the food industry that these categories continue to rack up sales faster than those in other categories.

“Big Food” is aware of this, and it also knows that there are about 65 class-action lawsuits filed against food manufacturers over whether foods with ingredients derived from biotechnology (GMOs) can be labeled as “natural.” Some of these lawsuits have resulted in multi-million-dollar settlements for aggrieved consumers who felt they had been duped by the “natural” labeling.

The problem is that FDA has no official definition for the meaning of “natural” on food labels. However, its website does offer this information:

“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

A patchwork of regulations

Legislatures in 26 states have been considering whether ingredients derived from biotechnology should be labeled and whether they belong in “natural” foods. Last summer, for example, Connecticut passed legislation on labeling that would make it illegal to use the word “natural” on the packaging of any food product containing biotech ingredients — legislation that Governor Dannel Malloy signed on Dec. 11. To avoid a patchwork of regulations on this, the GMA wants FDA “to become involved in ensuring consistent and uniform rules for foods with ‘natural’ claims and ingredients derived from biotechnology.”

There’s also this irony to consider: By 2018, grocery giant Whole Foods Market will require all foods that contain GMOs sold in its U.S. and Canadian stores to be labeled as such. If FDA allows foods with GMOs to be labeled as “natural,” consumers will likely be confused by two seemingly contradictory labels on the same package.

Referring to its request that “natural” labels be used for foods that include GMOs, the GMA points out that FDA’s 1992 policy on biotech foods states that they are no different from foods developed through traditional plant breeding.

“There is nothing ‘synthetic or artificial’ about foods derived from biotechnology, as that term has been applied by the agency,” states the group’s letter to FDA.

What was that again?

Kaare Melby of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) disagrees with the GMA’s stand on this. GMOs are a combination of DNA that would never exist in nature, he told Food Safety News.

Biotech giant Monsanto shared some similar thoughts when it described GMOs in its glossary of scientific terms: “Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. In general, genes are taken (copied) from one organism that shows a desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism.”

In an email to Food Safety News, Karen Batra of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the world’s largest biotechnology trade association, said that, “BIO has not yet taken a formal position on the issue, as this is a really a question for the food industry since biotech companies don’t label foods.”

A ‘David and Goliath battle’

“Biotech bullies and junk-food giants” is how Ronnie Cummins of the OCA describes those leading the charge for “natural” labels on foods containing GMOs. In an essay entitled, “GMO and ‘Natural’ Food Fight: Treacherous Terrain,” Cummins warns that a passionate grassroots movement will fight back in what he refers to as a “David and Goliath” battle.

Earlier this year, the OCA joined with allies in the organic and natural health community to launch a nationwide campaign in the U.S. to “expose and eliminate what it calls “the rampant ‘natural’ labeling and marketing fraud that has slowed the growth of America’s $30-billion organic sector.”

“Routine mislabeling and marketing fraud has confused millions of U.S. consumers and has enabled the so-called ‘natural’ foods and products sector to grow into a $60-billion-a-year powerhouse, garnering twice as many sales in 2012 as certified organic products,” states the organization’s press release about the formation of the Organic Retail and Consumer Alliance.

Adding a surprise twist to all of this, General Mills, Inc., has started producing GMO-free Cheerios. The company expects this new product, which will bear the label, “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients,” to be available to consumers “shortly.” However, this change does not affect other General Mills brands such as Honey Nut Cheerios.

What about food safety?

FDA has said that because GMO foods don’t materially differ from other types of foods, they don’t need to be labeled as such. But worldwide, more than 50 countries require foods with GMOs to be labeled.

In an earlier interview with Food Safety News, BIO’s spokesperson Batra said that “every credible scientific organization in the world has weighed in on this.”

Those organizations include the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, FDA, and a number of other medical and scientific groups. The consensus is that billions of people have eaten foods with GMOs for years without obvious evidence of a problem.

“They’ve all concluded that genetically engineered foods are the same as conventionally grown and organic foods,” Batra said.

Some of the scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science argued in a dissenting opinion last November that the absence of evidence of ill effects doesn’t mean there aren’t any. And they pointed out that FDA’s testing program pertaining to GMOs is voluntary.

Despite this swirl of controversy, GMO crops continue to march across the landscape. According to a February 2013 report issued by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a record 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries were growing biotech crops on more than 420 million acres. Also according to the report, this represents a “stunning 100-fold increase in hectares (a hectare is about 2.471 acres) planted since 1996, making biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history.”

The U.S. remains the top country in biotech acreage, with more than 172 million acres of biotech crops planted in 2012.

© Food Safety News
  • John Munsell

    “Naturally Grown Genetically Modified Food”. Now if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. Also a farce, and a bold-faced lie! My desire is for GMO food to be fully labeled as such, especially since it allegedly is safe and “normal”. I’m willing to pay extra for the absence of GMO. John Munsell

  • LoriBabcock

    It is not that they are “GMO” that cause health issues, it is all the poisons and toxins we can spray all over them that is destroying our environment and eco-systems. When they produce lab and research data to prove that GMO’s are the same , the only issue they are testing for has to deal with the organism itself up against a non engineered organism in a pristine lab environment. The data is ignored or never collected on what is happening when we spray, spray , and then spray some more poison all over it just because the new GMO won’t die from it. That plant, and the surrounding soil, water and air is absorbing it. It is killing us, literally and the manufacturers of all those chemicals know it. We need to change the conversation back to include more on what the toxins are, what they doing and even how the toxic the production of toxins are. We need a much bigger sledge hammer to break that up beside labeling GMO’s. We need some true anti chemical, pro health legislation in this country that will slow down the intense pollution of the soil and water and decimation of the natural world as we know it.

    • Auntie I

      I have had gastrointestinal difficulties since the late 90’s. I now have 4 ‘auto immune’ dis-eases that greatly limit my ability to move. Medications I take to alleviate my joint and muscle swelling, pain and deterioration have their own multitude of harsh effects on liver, kidneys etc. Since eliminating (or doing my best to) GMO products from my diet I have had some improvement. No once can convince me that all the chemicals and poisons I have put into my body through the food I have eaten, have not caused me grave physical difficulties. Wish I had know what was in my food from the time it started being inundated with poisons. I would have made a diligent effort to find or grow my food in its purest form possible.
      A significantly suppressed immune system is how I currently live. Some infection will no doubt take me out swiftly before I pass on due to old age. Wish I knew some entity to forward my remains to so that they could happily test away for evidence of the results of these poisons being present in our bodies!

  • farmber

    Here’s another GMO-speak convolution — proving once again that Corporate Biotech knows no shame — and totally believe their own lies…

    But why wouldn’t they? Spending $$$Billions on lobbying, disinformation campaigns, buying Congressmen and revolving door bureaucrats has proved to be an excellent investment — as they get what they want and there’s plenty more $$$ where that came from with their proprietary holdings.

    And once FDA wholly swallowed the substantial equivalence/patentable GMO dichotomy back in the 1990’s it’s been Governmental Carte Blanche ever since.

    So GMOs allowed as “Natural” in the marketplace?? It’s really just another lie-based convolution — and I hope they keep it up — at each turn more and more people see Biotech really has no clothes…

  • Carlo Silvestr

    I am absolutely disgusted with what GMA is proposing. Of course as we all know, GMA is just the instrument of Big Food, and as long as money talks, GMA will be there on the take and do what Big Food proposes. The term “no shame” truly defines and describes the GMA.

  • anthony samsel

    Unfortunately, the Bt events are fatally flawed. The CRY proteins destroy bacterial balance by as much as 50% of the populations examined. I will be publishing the results later in 2014. Its not just glyphosate that is a problem with these industrial agricultural crops, the toxic proteins are also a problem.

  • usvietnamvet

    Maybe it’s time for us to stop buying from grocery stores. If they are not willing to be honest with us they do not deserve our money. Buy from local ethical farmers/ranchers or grow it yourself. I wonder if then they’ll be willing to be ethical?

    • Rumbler

      Don’t blame the grocery stores, blame the food manufacturers who produce these items. Blame consumers who want cheap food, fast. Grocery stores can only sell the products that are manufactured and shipped to them.

      • Smooth Caramel


  • Oginikwe

    Well, here’s one interesting situation on the question you pose:

    GM food off the menu in Parliament’s restaurants despite ministers telling the public to drop their opposition (Daily Mail) 6/21/2013: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2345937/GM-food-menu-Parliaments-restaurant-despite-ministers-telling-public-drop-opposition.html#ixzz2m4FCw7iR

    And then there was this:

    GM foods not served in Monsanto cafeteria (CRISISBOOM) 8/22/2011: http://crisisboom.com/2011/08/22/gm-foods-not-served-in-monsanto-cafeteria/

  • Oginikwe

    You can always count on corporate America to push making the abnormal normal while having a completely warped sense of ethics. This proposal is so ironic that I have to wonder if it’s some kind of satire.

  • Joan Russow

    2014 is the 30th anniversary of Orwell’s 1984; If “natural” were to become ‘unnatural”; redefining “natural’ to include GMOs, would become the epitome of Orwellian ‘ double speak” .

    The institutional Collusion, in relation to genetically engineered food and crops, among corporations, governments, universities and regulatory agencies has been endemic; For the sake of food security for present and future generations: (i) this collusion must end; (ii) the
    precautionary principle must be invoked, (iv) genetically engineered food and
    crops, banned; (v) the charters of Monsanto et al, revoked; and (vi) charges of
    gross/criminal negligence against these corporations, levied.

    The Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), independent scientists, from the UK have called for banning in their recent Report, “Ban GMOs Now”. Also they have drafted a letter, opposing the retraction, by Elsevier, of the important study by Seralini. . .

  • Joan Russow

    is the 30th anniversary of Orwell’s 1984; If what is unnatural were to become labeled as
    ‘natural”; this would become
    the epitome of Orwellian ‘ double speak” .

    The institutional Collusion, in relation to genetically engineered food and
    crops, among corporations, governments, universities and regulatory agencies
    has been endemic; For the sake of food security for present and future
    generations: (i) this collusion must end; (ii) the

    precautionary principle must be invoked, (iv) genetically engineered food and

    crops, banned; (v) the charters of Monsanto et al, revoked; and (vi) charges of

    gross/criminal negligence against these corporations, levied.

  • farmber

    Ha! That’s quite a sheepish statement that falls right in line with the others in the Biotech flock pushing simplistic, unproven proprietary technology in the name of (non-independantly verified) “science”.

    Rather — once GMOs are properly labeled more and more consumers will be moving into organic and non-GMO markets — and GMO farmers will burst free of their biotech shackles to serve them….

  • savvy

    There is a market for non-organic (some people don’t think the expense is worth it or can’t afford it) food that does not contain GMOs.
    Labeling should be mandatory. If the consumer doesn’t mind GMOs then there won’t be a negative impact from being labeled as such.

    • SheepGirl

      Isn’t that why General Mills is touting it’s new GMO free Cheerios. Obviously the market is responding to the demand which obviates the need for more regulations and laws and their compliance costs.

      • It wasn’t that hard for GM to make Cheerios GMO-free. The main ingredient in Cheerios is oats and there are no GMO oats.

  • pjazzi

    …more evidence to go organic-although as always, buyer beware and savvy- Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen seem to part of the GMA. $ speaks-poison our food, so we need to take drugs to poison us further- no accident that the Food and Drug Association is under the same umbrella

  • William Pilacinski

    Those who literally eat crap are those who eat organic. Remember the 2006 E coli on spinach that killed 3? It was from a farm in its 3rd year of organic certification and processed by “Natural” Selection Foods (my emphasis on natural). Or the 2011 E coli outbreak in Germany? Again, organic sprouts. This should have been expected from an article by Mukherjee, et al, 2007, in Intl J Food Micro, which showed a higher incidence of E coli on organic produce in MN and WI. Where does E coli originate? Cow crap – and it cannot be completely removed by standard organic processes (my PhD is in microbiology).
    I retired from Monsanto 3 yrs ago. Also worked for Pillsbury/Green Giant, Sandoz Seeds, working on GM crops. I, my family, as well as billions of other humans throughout the world have eaten GM crops and foods for the last 18 year with no scientifically documented ill effects.
    It may not be perfect (nothing human is), but the FDA is the best food safety agency in the world. The problem is that we are stuck on meaningless terms like “natural” and “organic” which have nothing to do with food safety.

    • sharon tomlinson

      so the diabetes and gluten epidemic here starting around 18 yrs ago has nothing to do w/ GMOs?!? because no one person came into any office anywhere to be tested for what was in their GMO diet? FYI even if the seed is GMO, plant matter ingested by humans is currently grown in dirt, and picked by migrants – cowcr*p has the same E coli as human cr*p if humans cannot get to a bathrm break, oh, gee, no bathrms in the field! Not only do I grow my own veggies w/ cowcr*p, but I use horse, rabbit and chicken when I can get it. (all aged, never fesh – it kills the plants) I do not have a fancy shmacy PhD, but I do have common sense – WASH all growing things before you eat them goes a long way – I’ve eaten home grow veggies since my parents and grands and now I have had gardens, I’m over 65 and the one and only (only because I never ever ate this type of food again) time I had food poisoning was in the 80s from a hamburger I ate at a fastfood stand!

    • Rebecca

      Protecting your retirement income, what? You are now and have always been part of the problem. Read some research not paid for by Monsanto. Then again, you might have to commit ritual suicide for what you have done.

  • There is absolutely nothing “natural” about taking DNA from one species and putting it into another. . Oh, yeah, I forgot, we live in a time where the lie is the truth and the truth is a lie. It’s all logical if you have no moral standard. And the rulers of wickedness in high places do not.

  • food microbiologist

    I’d like to see data concerning production of microRNAs and silencing RNAs produced by any GMO. In my mind the addition of genes even in “harmless” sites could cause a kind of frameshift mutation in the plant’s genome; non-coding genes may have more of a role than anyone expects considering the biodiversity of things people eat, and I have yet to see any data on what becomes produced in each food product as a result. Same with data on genetic variance across generations of GMO plants (i.e. how many nucleotide variations per given time period, what genes become affected, etc). It would take a huge study to do all of this but that’s how I’d know GMOs aren’t that bad, besides using the soil for more than it can ever offer over time but now I’m getting into ecology.

  • Doreen Flint

    Where are the true long term studies (over 90 + days, preferably over a 25, 50, 100 year span anything less is truly criminal to the public) showing how GMOs affect our bodies?

  • sharon tomlinson

    @lori, the issue isn’t all the sprayed toxins, the GMOs were created to offset the cost to mega farms for all those toxins. I was at a farm meeting 10 yrs ago where the state farm extention service was pushing these GMO corn seeds – “they are harmless to humans”, even though the seed was engineered to explode a “specific insect when it got a bite of corn into its digestive tract.” Thus we could “stop using certain bug poisons on the corn if we used the seed.” Too bad the bugs mutate to work around this, so more and more “engineering” is required to stay ahead of them.
    The corn will “sit on a shelf for 6 mos before the sugars turn to starch”, so sweet corn will be sweet in a grocery, never mind that in real life, as soon as you pick an ear of corn off a stalk it starts a natural process of turning sugar to starch in the corn – no one explained what it did in a human body when you ate this stuff, how it went thru a human digestive system and what modified corn sugars did to your blood sugars!

    Even the wheat we now eat in nearly all flour sold in America is not digestable to the point there is an epidemic of gluten illness here. Real, unmodified wheat, as once grown 200 yrs ago, is hard to get, but you can eat it as any flour product w/o getting sick. You can grow your own if you have a farm, and grind it for home use.
    The BIGGER issue with GMOs is: the seed is modified to create sterile offspring, so anyone who is poor, or does sustainability home farming cannot save seed from yr to yr because it will not grow. It’s modified not to. There are a handful of international cos that know when you can control the food and water supply (not the oil) you can control the world.

  • Rebecca

    Grow your own.

  • Rebecca

    As a biologist who has done the research, I grow my own food and gladly eat it. By the way, my former property was infused with Arsenic from the cotton farmer before me. Spent 3 years on Arsenic remediation before planting. Monoculture is the only reason to use pesticides… it is also unnatural.
    Balance requires permaculture. In dry areas, try hugelkultur.

  • Dianna

    That’s a complete lie and beyond a ridiculously stupid statement.

  • JamaicaRose

    You’ve got this totally backwards. Organic means the food was raised without pesticides and herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. Organic farming preserves the life in the soil.

  • AA

    Where do you get such ludicrous information???

  • Sarah

    My biggest concern is how these GMO plants are going to affect the other natural plants in the farmscape. It’s really disturbing to think those plants are out there spreading their little frankenstein seeds into the natural world and over time there will only be the GMO and GMO-cross plants left. I shudder to think of it. Has no one questioned the irresponsibility of something like this?

  • aray

    GMO foods and the AMA walk hand -n-hand, they keep them in business. Until the American people decide to do something other than talk about it, it will remain the same.

  • Ra P

    No one will ever stop these pathological/insane companies/govmts from hurting people and living things because they are sick and consider logicall/reasonable thinking emotional. We should/could do without them totally. They want to kill us or turn us from slaves to biotech slaves. Never trust them

  • Sheila Orr

    I’m heading away from processed, modified and unnatural food. I stopped using margarine last year when I found out it was 1 ingredient from being plastic. It’s not easy, I’m just as spoiled as everyone one else on easy, throw in the oven and microwave food, but I’m working on it. It’s time to write the FDA.

  • Jimc1160

    GMO needs to be labeled. All GMO plants also need strict control. In farming the genes from GMO plants have been found in organically grown plants – they have made the leap. Bad part is the big-boys have stables of lawyers that go to these affected farms and then sue stating the farmers are violating their patents.This has the makings of a “Frankenstein” monster. How long will there be “real plants”

  • Cara B

    GMO troll!

  • numbersrunner

    People are part of nature. If we accept that, then anything invented or developed by people must be natural. That puts GMO food in the same class as natural new cars or natural works of art. Of course, that makes the word “natural” almost meaningless, which might explain why the term is not used as a specific definition. Why not just label the foods as containing GMO’s. If food processors or sellers want to explain the GMO, why not have them take out 4-page ads like the drug manufacturers.